WASHINGTON - With a shutdown clock ticking toward a deadline Friday night at midnight, House Republican leaders struggled Wednesday to unite the GOP rank and file behind a must-pass spending bill.
Although a major obstacle evaporated after key GOP senators dropped a demand to add health insurance subsidies for the poor, a number of defense hawks offered resistance to a plan by GOP leaders to punt a guns-versus-butter battle with Democrats into the new year.
There's still plenty of time to avert a politically debilitating government shutdown, which would detract from the party's success this week in muscling through its landmark tax bill.
Some lawmakers from hurricane-hit states also worried that an $81 billion disaster aid bill was at risk of getting left behind in the rush to exit Washington for the holidays.
Lawmakers said the GOP vote-counting team would assess support for the plan and GOP leaders would set a course of action from there.
Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, a Texas Republican, said "there's no specific direction right now" about the path forward. He spoke after an hourlong closed-door meeting of Republicans in the Capitol basement.
An earlier plan favored by pro-Pentagon members of the influential Armed Services Committee would have combined the stopgap funding bill with a $658 billion Pentagon funding measure. But the idea is a nonstarter with the Senate, especially Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat.
Meanwhile, an $81 billion disaster aid bill faced a potential separate vote of its own, but it was at risk of languishing because of opposition among some conservatives over its cost. Senate action on that bill, a priority of the Texas and Florida delegations, wouldn't come until next year anyway.
Democrats oppose the GOP endgame agenda because their priorities on immigration and funding for domestic programs aren't being addressed. Their opposition means Republicans need to find unity among themselves, which once again is proving difficult. In such situations, congressional leaders often turn to lowest common denominator solutions, which in this case would mean a stopgap measure that's mostly free of add-ons.
"The number of options is collapsing down," said Representative Frank Lucas, an Oklahoma Republican. "I have faith that at the last possible moment, to paraphrase Churchill, when we have no other choice, we'll do what we need to do."
Regardless of how the crisis of the moment will be solved, most of the items on Capitol Hill's list of unfinished business are going to be pushed into next year.
"I think it's highly unlikely that there's a government shutdown," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told Fox News Channel's Special Report with Bret Baier on Wednesday. "I think that the right thing to do is let's get a short-term funding [agreement] and we'll deal with these issues in January."
The upcoming short-term measure would fund the government through January 19, giving lawmakers time to work out their leftover business.
Hopes for a bipartisan budget deal to sharply increase spending for both the Pentagon and domestic agencies appeared dead for the year, and Democrats were rebuffed in their demands for protections for immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
Republican Senators Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Susan Collins of Maine announced Wednesday that they would not seek to add the insurance subsidies, which are designed to stabilize the Affordable Care Act's markets. The tax bill repeals requirement that individuals purchase insurance.
Trying to combine the health measure with the spending bill was a demand of Collins when President Donald Trump and Senate GOP leaders secured her vote for the tax bill.
House Republicans weren't part of that deal, and with the tax vote over, it became plain that Senate leaders were not able to deliver for her.
Programs for vets, children
Lawmakers said a short-term, $2.1 billion fix for an expiring program that pays for veterans to seek care outside the Department of Veterans Affairs system would be added to the package. So would a short-term "patch" to make sure the states facing shortfalls from the Children's Health Insurance Program, which pays for health care for 9 million children from low-income families, won't have to purge children from the program.
The fate of the $81 billion House disaster aid measure, now likely to see a separate vote, appears unclear. Conservatives are upset with the price tag of the plan, which also contains billions of dollars for California wildfire recovery. Democrats are pressing for more help for Puerto Rico, and California Representative Kevin McCarthy, the No. 2 Republican in the House, signaled a willingness for at least some accommodation to win Democratic votes.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California told fellow Democrats in an emailed update that GOP leaders aren't yielding on a Democratic demand that nondefense spending increases match the budget boost for the Pentagon.
"Unless we see a respect for our values and priorities, we continue to urge a strong NO" on the temporary funding bill, Pelosi said.
Democrats such as Schumer pressed for a two- or three-week temporary spending bill that would send a number of unresolved issues — including disaster aid — into the new year. Schumer appears to believe that shifting as many issues as possible into next year will increase his leverage on immigration and the budget.
Also in the mix is an expiring overseas wiretapping program aimed at tracking terrorists. It has bipartisan backing, but stout conservatives and some liberals oppose it. McCarthy said the program might just be extended for a few weeks, but libertarian-minded lawmakers opposed a plan by Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan to add it to the stopgap measure.